Scott McLaughlin scores first career IndyCar victory in St. Pete Grand Prix

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ST PETERSBURG, Florida — Scott McLaughin backed up the speed of his first career pole position with his first NTT IndyCar Series victory Sunday, winning the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg over defending series champion Alex Palou and teammate Will Power.

McLaughlin, 28, led the final 21 laps after inheriting the lead on a pit stop by fellow New Zealander Scott Dixon, who was on a different strategy.

He fended off a furious charge by Palou after the defending series champion was helped by McLaughlin getting held up by Jimmie Johnson, Palou’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, with 12 laps remaining.

STATS PACKAGE: Results, points and box score from St. Pete

But McLaughlin, who led 49 of 100 laps, held on after losing 2 seconds off his lead after Palou got within a car length.

“I’m exhausted,” McLaughlin told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “What a day. I’m out of breath here. It was crazy. I really struggled the last couple of laps to keep my head and save the fuel, but we did it. It’s unreal. Love you in Australia and New Zealand and miss you guys.”

It was the second consecutive season for a first-time winner in the season opener as McLaughlin joined Palou, who won at Barber Motorsports Park last year.

It was close,” Palou said. “It was really, really close, but I don’t think we had the pace he had today. He was on rails, and he knew where to go fast and where to obviously save some fuel at the end. I was just there trying to make some pressure so hopefully he made a mistake or anything, but no, he was all good.

“Congrats to him. I’m super happy that he got his first win. Yeah, I’m happier that we got our first podium of the year.”

It was only the second podium finish in 18 IndyCar starts for McLaughlin, a three-time Australian Supercars champion who had a best finish of second at Texas last year.

After placing 14th in the points during a quiet rookie season, he entered the 2022 vowing to take a more vocal role on and off the track for Team Penske — and he accomplished both in his first race of the season.

“Oh, I can’t believe it,” said McLaughlin, whose family remains in New Zealand and Australia because of pandemic restrictions. “Mom and dad, my sister, I know you guys are watching at home.”

Colton Herta finished fourth, followed by Romain Grosjean, Rinus VeeKay, Graham Rahal, Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson and Takuma Sato.

After McLaughlin dominated in leading the first 25 laps, the race’s complexion changed with its only caution when rookie David Malukas hit the Turn 3 wall.

McLaughlin led a parade of lead-lap cars into the pits, which cycled Alexander Rossi (the only driver who had yet to stop) into the lead ahead of Dixon, Pato O’Ward, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Kyle Kirkwood, Felix Rosenqvist, Devlin DeFrancesco, Dalton Kellett, Jack Harvey, Rinus VeeKay and Callum Ilott.

McLaughlin was in 13th as the first driver out of the pits.

The race stayed caution-free after that, and McLaughlin cycled back into first on Lap 62. After his second and final pit stop, McLaughlin moved back into first on Lap 80 when Dixon made his third stop.

Traditionally known for a plethora of yellows and wrecks on the tight downtown street course, the season opener was unusually clean Sunday.

But Lap 1 produced its usual drama into the Turn 1 right-hander as a record-tying 26 cars scrambled for position at the first corner.

The big mover was Pato O’Ward, who zoomed from 16th to ninth on the first lap with a series of bold inside-outside passes through the first two turns.

AJ Foyt Racing promotes Benjamin Pedersen from Indy Lights to IndyCar for 2023 season

Benjamin Pedersen AJ Foyt
AJ Foyt Racing
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Benjamin Pedersen is the first driver to land a promotion from Indy Lights into IndyCar for next season as AJ Foyt Racing confirmed Wednesday he’ll be part of its 2023 lineup.

Pedersen, a 23-year-old dual citizen of Denmark and the United States, spent last season running the full Indy Lights schedule for HMD Motorsports. Linus Lundqvist, his teammate, won the Lights title, and Pedersen finished fifth in the final standings. Pedersen earned his only win earlier this month when he led every lap from the pole at Portland.

Pedersen also ran four races for HMD in 2021 with back-to-back runner-up finishes in his debut. Pedersen landed on AJ Foyt Racing team president Larry Foyt’s radar through a “trusted colleague” and Pedersen spent most of last season shadowing the IndyCar team.

His promotion to IndyCar comes ahead of all four drivers who finished ahead of him in the Indy Lights standings, including champion Lundqvist.

“We are really looking forward to having Benjamin as part of the team,” Larry Foyt said. “His enthusiasm is infectious, and he is 100 percent committed to IndyCar, AJ Foyt Racing, and doing the best he can to win races.

“It’s been great to have him embedded with the team this past season, and everyone is excited to hit the ground running when testing begins. It is also great to have a multi-year program in place, which will help him and the team grow together.”

Foyt did not announce a car number for Pedersen. Kyle Kirkwood spent his rookie season driving AJ Foyt’s flagship No. 14 but Kirkwood is moving to Andretti Autosport. The team has not yet announced if Dalton Kellett will return for a fourth season, and a third car for Tatiana Calderon was pulled from competition after seven races because of sponsorship non-payment. Shutting down Calderon’s team removed the only semi-regular female driver from the IndyCar field.

Pedersen, however, was signed to an agreement Foyt said “spans multiple seasons as the team plans to develop the young rookie and is aligned to a longer-term plan for AJ Foyt Racing.”

Pedersen was born in Copenhagen but raised in Seattle and currently lives in Indianapolis. He said his time shadowing the IndyCar team has given him a jump on his rookie preparations.

“I’ve spent a lot of time this season with AJ Foyt Racing learning the ins and outs of making the jump to IndyCar and it’s been really nice to do that in conjunction with my Indy Lights season,” Pedersen said. “IndyCar has been my target goal since I started open wheel racing in 2016. The racing, atmosphere, fans, events, tracks, etc. are all awesome.”